Well, well, well, Mr Tarantino – how good of you to join us. What’s that you say? Your six year absence since Jackie Brown (1997) can be explained by the fact that you’ve been compiling an epic homage to 1970s kung-fu movies, packed full of clever post-modern nods, rib-tickling one-liners, deadly honeys in cat suits and excessive comic book violence? Not only that but this is just the first instalment, leaving audiences gasping for more after a brilliant, bloody, samurai sword-wielding cliffhanger? All right then, welcome back aboard.
That’s right, folks, Tarantino is back in the director’s seat where he belongs, away from ill-advised ventures into the acting world, and has returned, quite literally, with a vengeance. Kill Bill: Volume 1 (Volume 2 to be released next year) is hooked on the perfunctory pretext of any kung-fu film worth its salt – revenge. Uma Thurman plays The Bride who, pregnant and ready to walk down the aisle, sees her wedding party butchered by her former associates (The Deadly Viper Assassination Squad) before taking a bullet in the head from the bad guy boss, Bill (David Carradine). After waking from a four-year coma, The Bride decides it’s time for retribution and sets about finding her would-be killers for a kung-fu showdown. Firstly, she tracks down Copperhead (Vivica A. Fox) and has a vicious knife fight in her American suburban home. Then it’s time to tackle the rather more intimidating foe of O-Ren Ishi or Cottonmouth (Lucy Liu), who has since risen up the underworld ranks to become head of Japan’s biggest yakuza gang.
Over recent years, cinema-going audiences will have been convinced that kung-fu movies feature honourable warriors, whose fights are beautiful dance-like choreographed martial arts extravaganzas – such as Ang Lee’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000) or Zhang Yimou’s Hero (2002). Tarantino’s world is more Manga, 1970s chop-socky slash and trash where assassins continue to fight long after their limbs have been severed by samurai swords (think the Black Knight in Monty Python and the Holy Grail, 1975). Once again, through his sheer enthusiasm for the medium, Tarantino has managed to draw audiences into this cult world as easily as he did with Blaxploitation in Jackie Brown.
Power within the movie world has allowed Tarantino to indulge his fantasies when it came to casting. Firstly, we have David Carradine, the martial arts expert who beat Bruce Lee to the role in 1970s TV show Kung Fu, as Bill (although he is barely seen in Volume 1, but will no doubt feature heavily in the climax in Volume 2). Then we have veteran Japanese action star, Sonny Chiba, as Hattori Hanzo – the legendary sword-maker who equips The Bride with some ‘Japanese steel’ for her mission. Also, there is 19-year-old Chiaki Kuriyama resurrecting her killer schoolgirl role from Kinji Fukasaku’s Battle Royale (2000) and the star of several Shaw Brothers films, Gordon Liu, playing two characters. The references to kung-fu movies, Japanese yakuza films and spaghetti westerns in Kill Bill are, predictably, so numerous that they could provide the basis for many a film studies essay.
Also unsurprising is the director’s ability to raise a few eyebrows with the huge amount of onscreen violence. Tarantino, despite his reputation, has never been one to use violence gratuitously – the camera looks away for us in the infamous ear-cutting scene in Reservoir Dogs (1992), for example. Similarly here, the violence is comic book, in keeping with the genre it copies – severed limbs gush geyser-like, decapitated heads spurt and blood hits the floor by the gallon (yet Thurman’s Bruce Lee-style cat suit remains untarnished). Perhaps the most disturbing part of the film is when The Bride awakes from a coma to discover that a red-neck hospital attendant has been hiring her out to horny truckers. Her retribution is brutal and the camera watches unflinchingly as she shatters his head between a doorframe. Perhaps this is a message from Tarantino – this is real violence, what you are about to see never happens in real life. The latter world is confined to the movies (or until recently Tarantino’s brain). Where else can you carry a samurai sword on a plane (scissors aren’t even allowed in hand luggage nowadays), splatter bad guys without encountering guns or cops, or awake from a four-year coma with nothing but stiff legs?
Tarantino’s traditional writing partner, Roger Avery, has not collaborated on Kill Bill and so perhaps as a result the plot has lost some of its narrative complexity and the one-liners often fall rather short. However, despite all of the director’s claims of ‘homage’ and references to ridiculously obscure martial arts movies, Kill Bill shouldn’t be viewed with chin-stroking appreciation. What he has made here is a playful tribute to a genre that had a very strong influence over him during his formative years. It oozes adrenaline, is soaked in enough blood to make Takashi Miike jealous and is simply a ridiculously contagious and exciting film.